NY Conversation February 2011

“Los Angeles,” said Frank Gehry in Vanity Fair a few months back, “is a city free of the burdens of history”.

February finds NY Conversation fleeing the New York winter for a month in Australia, and this necessitates a fairly surreal 24 hours in LA en route. When you visit the city, you can see what Gehry was getting at. As a city that’s basically an invention of the 20th century, LA provided a de facto canvas for expression of what was the dominant cultural vision for that century, an era that history will remember as the American century.

It’s a place that embodies ideas that are fundamental to America’s cultural identity, a seemingly limitless expanse of empty land sketched in by the modernist straight lines of highways and super-sized city blocks. If New York is the country’s most European city, then LA is its most quintessentially American (and American in a broader sense of the word, too – the place is virtually bilingual, and there’s a strong Hispanic influence on the culture).

A night in the place gets you thinking about the cultural tropes that it has come to represent: the American dream, the idea of meritocracy and opportunity, the idea that you can have a big car and as much petrol as you want and drive everywhere, the idea that consumerism and freedom of choice will lead to a trickle-down cornucopia of goodness for everyone. It’s all terribly romantic, of course, and a healthy slice of it is complete and utter horseshit.

But the interesting thing is how pervasive these ideas are, how vital they are to the way America sees itself, and how much the continued health and very existence of LA – as their actual physical avatar – is tied into their ongoing power. After all, the city’s dominant economic role is that of a culture factory. Its biggest business is entertainment, and for all that it’s one of America’s largest manufacturing centres, even its material exports are culturally charged – clothes, computers and, inevitably, cars.

Much of this has its roots in the idea to which Gehry alludes – going west and writing your own history (conveniently shunting aside whoever happened to be there first, of course). But the more time you spend in LA, the more you also come to realise that Gehry’s statement isn’t entirely true. LA is certainly a young city, a place that grew in tandem with America, a metropolis that exploded into  as America positioned itself for global superpowerdom. But for all that it shares nothing with what Donald Rumsfeld contemptuously called “old Europe”, there’s one history that LA can’t escape: its own.

As it embodies America’s ideology, so LA embodies the dark side of that ideology. The darker moments of the city’s past mirror the underside of America’s best-of-all-possible-worlds vision of capitalist democracy. Investigate the city’s past, and you find whispers about things like the Great American Streetcar Scandal, wherein tyre companies apparently conspired to force public transport out of LA (and various other cities in the US). Or the Battle of Chavez Ravine, where a public housing project was abandoned to make way for a new sports stadium, resulting in the forced relocation and disenfranchisement of an entire community of largely poor Hispanic residents. Or the recent closure of public libraries due to budget constraints in a city that’s home to some of the richest people in the world.

And now, as the US economy continues to splutter and the era of the country’s role of sole global superpower draws to a close, LA starts to feel like a city-sized cenotaph for a faded dream. It’s a city steeped and struggling in its own mythology and history – the ‘50s stylings of its diners, the pockmarked motorways, neon lights and alienation. Drive at night in LA and you can almost see the old ghosts – The Doors haunting the Rainbow, Guns N Roses in faded photos at Kantor’s (where a fish-eyed old waitress will sell you a signed copy of their book), the faintly desperate posing of starlets for paparazzi outside the Viper Room.

Every time I’ve been to the city – which is several over the last few months, for various reasons – I’ve tried to express in words the almost indefinable sense of nostalgia that pervades the Californian night, a strange melancholy longing for an age that is gone and perhaps never existed. All this, of course, makes LA a perversely enchanting and evocative place to be. It’s strange and fascinating and almost entirely alien. Much like the country it calls home, it’s a city free from the burden of all history but its own, and that’s a burden that seems to grow heavier with every passing year.

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